Becoming Che

Benicio Del Toro on the method, the madness, and the merchandising

Benicio Del Toro in <i>Che</i>
Benicio Del Toro in Che

At four hours and 22 minutes, Steven Soderbergh's two-part biopic of Argentine-born Cuban revolutionary Che Guevara may seem to some audiences to be nearly as grueling as the revolution itself. But forget about them: Benicio Del Toro, without qualm the best character actor of his generation, simply is Che, and he embodies the "guerrillero heroico" in every way and with all of his fervent, asthmatic, conflicted, and conflicting Marxist manners intact and true. It may not be Soderbergh's best film (Traffic is still No. 1 in our book), but no one can argue against Del Toro's tour de force performance, which is a veritable acting class in and of itself.

The Austin Chronicle spoke to Del Toro from his home in Puerto Rico and got the lowdown on the importance of being Benicio being Che.

Austin Chronicle: When did you first learn the story of Che Guevara?

Benicio Del Toro: I was living in Puerto Rico until ninth grade, which would have been around 1982, and the T-shirts were not hip then, the key chains were not hip. The times were a little bit different, and so growing up I really didn't learn much about Che from school. The first time I heard his name was in a Rolling Stones song.

AC: Seriously? Which one?

BDT: It's a song off their Emotional Rescue album called "Indian Girl." There's a line that says, "My father, he ain't no Che Guevara." So if I knew anything about Che, it was that he was a bandolero, you know, a guerilla, maybe scary. And it was not until 1989 when I was in Mexico City doing a movie that I went into a bookshop and bought a collection of his letters.

AC: What movie was that?

BDT: I did a small part in License to Kill, the James Bond movie, and when I was out, I went into the streets and bought the book and started reading his writing. At the time, I was, like, reading without being forced to read? And I had read some Hemingway short stories and Jack Kerouac's On the Road, and I remember [Che's] letters reminding me a little bit of that writing. It was what I considered good writing. It moved me. It was witty, it was smart, and there was a social awareness to it. He also auto-criticized himself in those letters. And he was about my age at the time he was writing these letters. It just grabbed me, and I realized that there was this whole other side to this guy that I had been unaware of until then. In the West, that other side was kept in the closet for so long. He didn't become a cinematic idea or a possibility until 1997, when Jon Lee Anderson's biography, Che [Guevara]: A Revolutionary Life, was published. That was when producer Laura Bickford approached me.

AC: How did you prep for becoming Che? That had to be daunting.

BDT: With any movie you do, there are two key things. You have to learn about the character, as much as you can, in a limited amount of time, because there's a clock that begins ticking the minute you decide you're going to do the movie. And then you just have to understand what the scenes are about and then go with that. You know? There's no secret to it, you just have to understand the scenes, and then if you know the person and you know why he was in that situation or how he reacted in that situation, then that helps you understand it even better. That was the main thing. Understanding what the scenes were about. Because there's a lot of things you can do with mannerisms, the way he walked and the sound of how he talked. But at some point, that all has to go out the window, especially if you're working for Steven. There's no time for, you know, "We're going to paint this perfect." It's more like, "Be in the moment, and we'll capture it, and that's as perfect as it can be." Initially it was stressful, but then it became a good way to work, because you're always moving forward.

AC: How do you account for the enduring popularity of Che Guevara 42 years after his death? There's not a dorm room the world over that hasn't been witness to Alberto Korda's famous photograph. And how do you feel about the merchandising of Che the Revolutionary?

BDT: I think at the beginning I felt kind of weird about it, but then I started thinking about it and came to the conclusion that a big majority of the people that recognize that image or own it or are attracted to it, they understand an essence about the guy. Maybe not everything, but they'll know that this is a guy that didn't sell out; he's an underdog like David from David and Goliath. There's something there that they pick up on, the "Yes I can" of it or not differentiating between skin colors. I think that they comprehend the essence of the guy. When you see it on a bottle of wine or whatever, it can be weird, but I think that the good outweighs the bad.

AC: Now that Fidel Castro has handed over the reins to his brother, Raul, where do you see Cuba heading these days? Do you see it returning to that sort of risqué anti-glamour of the prerevolutionary years?

BDT: I don't think Cuba's going to go to that place, but the country is definitely moving forward. I think the real question is, what is the American government going to do? That's the big question. It all depends on whether or not the U.S. allows the resumption of trade with Cuba. If that happens, I think it could be very beneficial for both countries. What's going to happen with this new administration coming in? I know Obama has said he wants to sit down and talk to leaders that the current administration considers to be, you know, Axis of Evil or whatever. Which I think is a great beginning.  

Che opens in Austin on Friday, Jan. 23. See Film Listings, for review.

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